The Gophers face Northwestern this weekend in another critical matchup as the team tries to continue its current turnaround. After two straight wins on the road against conference opponents, the Gophers come back to Williams Arena for a quick homestand and a chance to go for three straight wins and further establish themselves in the B1G conference picture. We caught up with Loretta8 from Sippin’ on Purple to give us a glimpse of what we might expect from the Wildcats when they come to town, what they’ve done so far this year and if they’ll continue to run that pesky 1-3-1 zone that gives us all nightmares.

FTB: The Wildcats had a close call with Michigan and also ended up pulling out a big win over the Spartans. What’s the feeling in Evanston this season? Are people optimistic?

SOP: Many fans were discouraged after the heartbreaking losses to Illinois and Michigan but there was definitely a surge of optimism following the upset over Michigan State. It varies by the game: if NU loses everyone’s really depressed but when NU wins everyone starts thinking this will finally be the year.

FTB: What have been the biggest surprises for the Wildcats so far this season?

SOP: Drew Crawford emerging as one of the Big Ten’s best scorers has been a pleasant surprise after Crawford had a disappointing sophomore year. Bill Carmody challenged him to attack the basket more this season and he’s done just that, and improving his 3-point shooting by 10 percentage points has added a lot to his game.

Freshman Dave Sobolewski has also greatly exceeded expectations; he’s made an immediate impact and looks poised to develop into one of the Big Ten’s better point guards in future years, not bad for a guy who was mostly getting offers from Ivy and Patriot League schools out of high school. And former walk-on Reggie Hearn’s emergence as a passable Big Ten shooting guard came completely out of nowhere.

FTB: The 1-3-1 zone that Northwestern sometimes employs has given the Gophers fits in recent years. What can we expect from the Wildcats on both sides of the ball when they come to town this weekend?

SOP: The Gophers appear on paper to be vulnerable to the 1-3-1 zone given their inexperienced, turnover prone back court and dearth of great shooters, but Tubby Smith seemed to finally solve the 1-3-1 at the Barn last year, and Carmody abandoned it the final two games vs Minnesota. Fortunately for Gopher fans, Dan Monson (whose teams looked completely clueless against the 1-3-1 zone for years) is no longer the coach. I expect you’ll see Northwestern alternate between man and the 1-3-1.

On offense it’s the same old Princeton offense for Northwestern, with John Shurna and Crawford getting the lion’s share of the touches.

FTB: What do the Wildcats need to do the rest of the season to finally get to the Big Dance?

SOP: With their strong non-conference schedule (ranked 29th toughest in the nation by the RPI) and the absurdly difficult Big Ten, 9-9 in the conference should get them in. They might even have a chance at 8-10, but that would be dicey. It appears that the Big Ten will get 7 bids and NU and Minnesota are fighting for the 8th, so this game will be very important.

FTB: What are your thoughts on the game against Minnesota? How do you think it will play out.

SOP: I’m expecting a close game. NU should easily win the turnover battle while Minnesota should easily win the rebounding battle, and it will come down to who can knock down more perimeter shots. A concern for Northwestern is if Minnesota can get to the line a lot, the NU bench is depleted; they only had seven scholarship players available in their last game vs Wisconsin due to injuries.

FTB: Be honest. Is this the first year the Wildcats finally get to the NCAA Tournament?

SOP: If forced to bet on it, I’d say no, but this will likely be the closest they’ve ever come in the modern era (barring an injury to Shurna or Crawford).